House passes bill to raise minimum marriage age to 18, sending it to governor

By ETHAN DeWITT

New Hampshire Bulletin

Published: 05-03-2024 7:38 AM

The New Hampshire House passed a bill Thursday raising the legal age of marriage to 18, sending the legislation to Gov. Chris Sununu’s desk after years of advocacy.

Senate Bill 359, which passed 192-174, states that “no person below the age of 18 years shall be capable of contracting a valid marriage, and all marriages contracted by such persons shall be null and void.” Under present law, that age is 16.

The bill would also repeal statutes that currently provide legal avenues for minors to marry. Currently, RSA 457:6 allows parents and guardians for those between 16 and 18 to petition a family court to grant permission for the marriage. That petition must include an indication of whether the Division for Children, Youth and Families has ever been involved with the child, and it allows the court to conduct an interview with each minor getting married without their parents present. SB 359 would eliminate the process entirely.

If signed into law, SB 359 would make New Hampshire one of 12 states that have banned marriage under 18 with no exceptions, a list that includes Connecticut, Delaware, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington, according to UNICEF

Maine currently allows 16- and 17-year-olds to marry with written consent from their parents, legal guardians, or custodians. But any marriage of minors in Maine would be invalid in New Hampshire if SB 359 becomes law. 

The bill comes after years of pressure by Rep. Cassandra Levesque, a Barrington Democrat. In 2018, Levesque, then 19 and not yet a state representative, advocated for the Legislature to raise the marriage age to 18 from 14; House and Senate Republicans agreed to pass a bill to raise it to 16 instead. Later that year, Levesque won her first election to the House and has continued to press for the age to be raised to 18. 

Levesque argued raising the age would help reduce exploitative situations. 

“The committee found that this bill is important to be in law because we know that age of majority does not amount to maturity, and that there is a greater risk of human trafficking and domestic violence without these protections,” she said in remarks in the House Calendar introducing SB 359. 

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Republican lawmakers have opposed raising the marriage age in recent years. On Thursday, Rep. Margaret Drye, a Plainfield Republican, argued there were some circumstances in which marriage was a beneficial option for those under 18. 

Drye recounted two times when a friend or a family member had obtained judicial approval for a marriage below the age of 16 because of an unexpected pregnancy. 

“They elected to get married because that offered to the young woman things that she didn’t have before: stability, provision, protection, and a chance for a young family to be a family before a baby arrived,” she said. “The goal was still the same: marriage and raising a family together. They just got there in a little different timeline.”

Rep. Jess Edwards argued that taking away the possibility of marriage could lead more 16- and 17-year-olds to abortion.

“… If we continually restrict the freedom of marriage as a legitimate social option, when we do this to people who are a ripe, fertile age and may have a pregnancy and a baby involved, are we not in fact making abortion a much more desirable alternative, when marriage might be the right solution for some freedom-loving couples?” he said. 

And Rep. Tony Lekas of Hudson cited his marriage to Rep. Alicia Lekas, also of Hudson, which he said began when he was 16. “And we didn’t need any outside input from anyone,” he said. “We’ve been married almost 53 years.” 

Rep. Josh Yokela, a Fremont Republican, introduced two amendments that would have made an exception to the 18-year-old marriage requirement if the minors had been emancipated by a court. 

But House Democrats countered that children should not be married at 16 or 17 under any circumstances. And they disagreed that emancipation should be a qualification. 

“The fact of the matter is that emancipated minors cannot vote; they cannot purchase or consume tobacco or alcohol; they cannot purchase firearms,” said Rep. Peter Petrigno. “Why then would we allow for an age exception to marriage and nothing else?” 

Petrigno argued that emancipated children are some of the most vulnerable children, and could be taken advantage of by adults if allowed to marry.

“Marriage is an emotional lifetime commitment based on love, not a solution to an unintended pregnancy,” he said. “We should not be putting children in a position to be taken advantage of by unsavory adults.”

Both of Yokela’s amendments were voted down. The bill will head to Sununu’s desk in the coming weeks.